Secrets of Yosemite: Where to Sleep in a Former Brothel, Drink with a Park Ranger, and More

Most of the nearly four million annual visitors to California’s Yosemite National Park spend their time in Yosemite Valley, a postcard-worthy swath of land known for its granite Half Dome and—perhaps more notably—its bumper-to-bumper traffic come summer. But there’s more to the park, if you know where to look. Read on for some insider tips that only the locals know.

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The Evergreen Lodge. (Courtesy: The Evergreen Lodge)

Go Ahead, Sleep in an Old Brothel

Long before I became a travel writer, I was a front-desk staffer at Evergreen Lodge, on Yosemite’s western border. Back in the early 1920s, during the building of the O’Shaughnessy Dam in Hetch Hetchy Valley, the place was rumored to be a moonshine distillery-slash-brothel-slash-general store. Today, the unsavory characters are long gone … you’ll find 90 modern cedar cabins decked by old growth forest (with interiors by San Francisco designer Charles de Lisle); a 2,000-square-foot, open air saltwater pool and hot tub; a massage cabana encircled by trees; glamping tents; and even sunrise yoga offered in a nearby meadow. Only the towering pine trees that encircle the property remember what really happened back in the 20s, as well as the age-old on-site tavern, still a raucous spot for après-hike revelry.

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The Ahwahnee Hotel. (Photo: Teddy Llovet)

Drink Like a Park Ranger

Most visitors to Yosemite stop in at the fabled Ahwahnee Hotel, a valley-floor mainstay since 1927 for its iconic Sunday Brunch—or at least to ogle the dining room, with its 34-foot pine ceiling and floor-to-ceiling outlook. Ordinarily, a tourist-filled spot is ranger repellant; believe me, they get enough of sightseers while they’re working! But the hotel’s old ski chalet vibe (woodsmoke-scented air, open rafters, creaking floorboards) lures even the most seasoned park veterans. “Most of us spend our time off in the outdoors, but occasionally we’ll go for a drink,” says park ranger Kari Cobb. “When we do, it’s to the Ahwahnee bar or even Yosemite Lodge.” On the Ahwahnee cocktail menu, we recommend the Pink Dogwood, made with tequila, cranberry, and triple sec. Another go-to local watering hole? The Hotel Charlotte in nearby Groveland, where rangers head for trivia nights and wash down a dinner of truffled yam gnocchi and steelhead trout deviled eggs with a Sierra Pack Mule (ginger brew, vodka, muddled lime, and locally picked mountain sage).

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Ahwahnee Hotel’s Great Lounge. (Photo: Don Sullivan)

Eat at a Gas Station

California’s roadside stalls are traditionally devoted to rotating hot dogs and pork rinds, but near the east entrance of the park, the Whoa Nellie Deli at the Tioga Gas Mart is anything but standard-issue. It’s a working Mobil gas station, but rather than just filling up and hitting the highway, people actually hang out there—eating lunch on the outdoor picnic tables overlooking glimmering Mono Lake. Order the fried fish tacos (one comes with ginger coleslaw, the other with sweet mango salsa) and lobster taquitos, plated on Brazilian black beans. It’s worth stopping by on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, when you’ll typically find a local bluegrass band jamming al fresco.

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Fish Tacos at the Whoa Nelli Deli. (Photo: Calamity-hane)

Get Up Early

I know, I know … you’re on vacation, so why set an alarm? Most people are inherently lazy when they’re taking time off, so sleeping in is de rigueur. But that’s the beauty of rising early: aside from the mule deer, coyotes, and black bear you might see, you won’t have anyone else around, which vastly improves your experience in the park. It sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how few people take advantage of it—you can hear snoring on your morning hikes near the campgrounds. So jog the trails, climb the boulders, and stretch in the fields that, come 10 a.m., will be clogged with day trippers.

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Merced Grove. (Photo: Carlos Villarreal)

Avoid Yosemite Valley

Well, don’t dodge it completely—after all, it’s like a real-life Ansel Adams photograph. But Yosemite Valley shouldn’t be your only experience in the park, when there are so many equally stunning experiences to be had without the hordes. “People visiting for the first time always want to see the 3,000-year-old sequoia trees at Mariposa Grove,” says Elisabeth Barton, director of recreation for Evergreen Lodge and a fifth-year veteran of the park. “What they don’t know is that it’s a logistical nightmare getting there, with hours of driving and even a shuttle bus before you actually spot the trees.” The sequoias at Merced Grove and Tuolumne Grove are equally majestic—and if you walk even a mile in, you’ll be nearly, if not entirely, alone among the trees.

(Photo: Thinkstock)

Take a Hidden Hike

With over 750 miles of footpaths (including part of the Pacific Crest Trail) within its boundaries, Yosemite is brimming with little-known hikes. But finding ones that are worth your hard-earned vacation time? That’s a different story. I always opted for jaunts in Tuolumne Meadows, where the rolling green fields are surrounded by jagged, snow-capped granite mountains. It’s so eye-poppingly beautiful, I almost started singing “The Hills Are Alive” on more than one occasion. One favorite hike there: the 2.5-mile, round-trip trek to Pothole Dome, at 8,500-foot elevation. “If you walk behind Pothole Dome, you’ll see a beautiful cascade and meadow by the river,” Barton says. “There’s never anyone out there, even in the height of summer … and it’s less than a mile from your car!” Ranger Cobb recommends the three-mile Gaylor Lakes hike, which leaves from Tioga Pass: “It takes roughly two hours, and you’ll get a big view of 11,000-foot Cathedral Peak.”

Kathryn O’Shea-Evans is staff editor at This Old House and has written for Travel + Leisure, InStyle, and Lonny. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @ThePluckyOne.